America’s teachers’ unions have been unusually pugnacious this year, walking out, hardening their line against charter schools, stonewalling experiments with performance-based pay, agitating to ease state academic standards, and going bananas over vouchers and other education referenda. It's not just the election that’s got them riled. Much of their present agitation is a reaction against education reforms now gaining traction in some states and communities.
Whether these reforms are the standards and accountability kind or the competition and choice variety, they are being pushed from outside the traditional public education system. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the toughest defenders of the status quo, namely, the teachers’ unions, are using every weapon in their arsenals to fend off unwanted changes.
The teachers’ unions are not just playing defense. They are also reaching for new sources of power. A notable example is the unions’ ongoing campaign to wrest control of teacher certification from elected boards and state officials and take it into their own hands—and those of their allies in the colleges of education.
At least a dozen states have fallen for this innocent-sounding proposal. Wisconsin yielded last year. Ohio is on the verge.
Legislators are asked to approve an independent “professional standards board” for teachers and give it sole responsibility for training and licensure. The version that’s sliding through Ohio’s statehouse includes school administrators. Its progress has been lubricated by sizable sums passing from union coffers into legislative campaign treasuries, Republicans most definitely included.
Give the unions full marks for political shrewdness. They know that control of who can teach brings with it vast leverage over everything that happens in education. And where once they confined their largesse to Democrats, today they’ll buy or rent any politician who can assist their single-minded pursuit of self-interest. Their pockets are deep. They are astute at public relations, too. This power grab is carefully concealed under the fig leaf of “teacher professionalism.”
But what a disaster for children and for school reform. Such “standards boards” give the public education establishment control over who can work in a state’s public schools and, often, in its charter and private schools. This means that every fad sweeping through the field—whole-language reading, “fuzzy” math, “multiage grouping,” whatever—can be made part of every teacher’s compulsory training regimen. It means academic content mastery can be subordinated to pedagogy courses. It means that fragile efforts to allow bright college graduates to enter the classroom without passing through ed schools can be stymied and that teacher licensing becomes unhinged from a state’s halting attempts to hold its schools to account for their academic performance.
This is not “professionalism.” In American society, professionals are skilled practitioners whom clients and patients can choose among. They don’t have a monopoly, they don’t bargain collectively, and they don’t have the right to strike.
It would be a fine thing for teaching to become a true profession, too. But that needs to happen before it’s given greater sway over what happens in a state’s schools.